IUU fishing: Deadliest catch in the world

IUU fishing goes against the survival of humanity.

IUU fishing threatens the rule of law, maritime sovereignty and freedom of the seas, and it has a greater impact on our life than we may realize.  

By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

IUU fishing is the dishonest fishing practices, both on the high seas and in sovereign waters, that include illegal fishing in contravention of existing laws and regulations, unreported or misreported fishing, and unregulated fishing executed by vessels without nationality and/or conducted in areas where the flag state is not a party to international agreements or in areas where fishery management measures do not exist.

The opaque and criminal nature of IUU fishing makes it difficult to quantify the full economic impact.  However, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 11 and 26 million metric tons of fish are caught illegally each year.  And by some estimates, the annual economic loss because of the diversion of fish from the legitimate trade is US$26 billion to US$50 billion, and losses to countries’ tax revenues are between US$2 billion and US$4 billion.

Global fish consumption has been on the rise for the past 60 years.  Fishing is an important industry affecting the survival of people around the world.  It is a US$401 billion global industry and 3.3 billion of the world’s population depends on fisheries for jobs and food security.  Seafood provides 20 percent of protein intake for nearly half of the global population. 

And yet, IUU fishing is threatening all that as currently, 93 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or significantly depleted, and global climate change is adversely affecting the existing stocks too. 

IUU fishing is a threat to economic, national security

According to FAO, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s total catch comes from IUU fishing and in some regions such as the coastal waters of developing countries, it can be up to 40 percent.  IUU fishers, be they companies or countries, are robbing legal fishers of their livelihood.  They avoid the costs associated with playing by the rules to access the lucrative but legal global fishery market, and costs associated with compliance to conservation and sustainable fishing practice.  

IUU fishing puts legitimate fishing at a disadvantage when illegally caught seafood enter the marketplace.  IUU fishing not only harms the legal fishers today, it also robs future generations of both fishers and consumers of their livelihood and food source respectively, by putting fish stocks at greater risk of extinction.

There are hidden costs associated with IUU fishing.  It exacerbates poverty, is a theft of resources and adds billions of dollars to the costs borne by consumers and the global community.  Jobs are lost and governments suffer from lower export earnings when trade documents are falsified to avoid duties and tariffs, or fish are shipped through various countries to avoid taxation, or illegal catches are transferred at sea to other vessels to facilitate their landing.   

Besides the economic loss, the destruction of legitimate economies, and the risk to the livelihood of fishing and coastal communities, IUU fishing also erodes national and regional security, undermines maritime rules-based order, increases geopolitical tensions and jeopardizes food security.  With a growing population and rising world hunger, fish has emerged as an important protein source for attaining food security.  However, efforts to ensure sustainable fishing are being seriously compromised by IUU fishing.

IUU fishing opens the door to organized crimes 

Significantly too, perpetrators of IUU fishing, who take advantage of corruption also, often have direct ties to organized crimes including human trafficking and drug smuggling, as they used similar trade routes, landing sites and vessels for trafficking arms, migrants, drugs, and other contraband.  

The captains of IUU fishing vessels often hire uneducated migrants from impoverished regions, who are poorly paid or not paid at all, and subject them to human rights abuses and forced labor at sea.  These modern-day slaves are deceived and coerced by brokers and recruitment agencies and forced to work onboard vessels under the threat of violence or by means of debt bondage.

Victims described illness, physical injury, mental and sexual abuse, and deaths of crewmates.  They were forced to work for long hours every day, often at a stretch for months or even years at a time.  The work was intense, hazardous and difficult and the environment dangerous.  They were vulnerable and helpless onboard vessels in remote locations of the sea.  

And it is for this reason that because the transgressions occurred where it had, it is hard for the authority to monitor and to enforce safety and labor regulations.  In addition to the human suffering, forced labor gives IUU fishing vessels an unfair cost advantage over the legitimate fishing trade.

Human suffering goes hand in hand with IUU fishing

On October 26, an investigation by Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that Indonesian crew onboard six Chinese vessels, part of the Liao Dong Yu fleet, which were fishing illegally off the coast of Somalia, were beaten, deprived of food and forced to work for nothing.  The crew also reported being denied access to clean water, proper protective equipment and access to medical supplies and assistance.  One Indonesian man died in an attempt to swim ashore to escape the atrocities.

After their contracts ended, the vessel operator refused to repatriate at least 13 Indonesian crew members, and they were forced to stay and work.  In August, EJF, along with Destructive Fishing Watch and the International Justice Mission were finally able to repatriate the remaining 12 Indonesian crew.

According to the EJF investigation, the Chinese vessels fished in Somali waters without authorization, used prohibited gear including trawl nets, and fished in zones reserved for local Somali fishers.  They also caught protected and endangered species like whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and a megamouth shark, an extremely elusive shark species with less than 100 specimens ever observed.  It was even reported that the cook took the dolphins’ guts and prepared them for the Chinese crew members’ meals.

These illegal Chinese vessels exploited marine resources and caused irreversible damage to the marine ecosystem, and endangered the livelihood and food security of local fishing communities, because they know countries like Somali lack the law enforcement capacity to police their sovereign waters.

IUU fishing is a potent risk to Mother Nature

IUU fishing goes against conservation and sustainable management measures designed to protect the marine ecosystem and ensure that species are not overexploited or threatened.  The illegal fishers use prohibited gear, indiscriminately catch all kinds of species in excessive quantities, including unauthorized ones, fish during off season, underreport catch quantities and operate in vulnerable and protected areas. 

These harmful actions threaten the sustainability of marine resources and damage fragile habitats ranging from mangroves to coral reefs, for example, through the use of bottom-trawling.  Also, thousands of marine species die as bycatch and overfishing often leaves the breeding stock so depleted that the fish cannot replenish themselves.  

IUU fishing is linked to marine plastic litter, according to FAO, and this results in the death of many marine species.  There is a connection between IUU fishing and fishing gear abandoned at sea.  Vessels engage in IUU fishing dump their fishing gear when they fear getting caught and these abandoned fishing gear can trap and kill many species of fish, including endangered and vulnerable ones, from turtles to certain shark species.

China’s problematic appetite for seafood

According to the U.S. NOAA 2021 Report to Congress on August 12, China is listed as engaging in IUU fishing.  The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s IUU Fishing Index stated that China is the largest contributor to IUU fishing worldwide and poses a geopolitical threat to economic stability.

Distant Water Fishing (DWF) fleets, which conduct fishing activities on an industrial scale in foreign waters far from their home countries, have been closely associated with IUU fishing.  China has the largest DWF fleet in the world and importantly, a report from the Overseas Development Institute released in June 2020 said at least 183 vessels in China’s DWF fleet are suspected of involvement in IUU fishing.

Additionally, the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, estimated to include 3,000 vessels, actively carries out aggressive behavior against other countries’ coast guards, and intimidate legitimate fishermen on the high seas and in sovereign waters to support the Chinese Communist Party’s long term maritime strategic goals.

A shared future: In humanity’s interest to fight IUU fishing

IUU fishing, which has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat, is a serious issue affecting the future of humanity that warrants the attention of the global community and all consumers.  Be that as it may, not all maritime nations and flag states have the capacity, political will, or moral conscience to police their sovereign waters and registered vessels.  

This lack of law enforcement, weak management and disregard of IUU fishing create loopholes for exploitation. And if the loopholes are left unaddressed, these nations and flag states will become accomplices, unwittingly or otherwise, to IUU fishing and their inaction will gradually normalize the criminal behavior and erode rules-based order that foster peace, stability and prosperity.

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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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